The field recordings that comprise a solid chunk of Sublime Frequencies‘ releases tend to be some of the label’s most intriguing works. Where their archival compilations tend to be full of rare, digestible pop tracks shot through with nostalgic vinyl crackles and cassette warps, the field recordings are crystal clear and totally transportive, including new release Mien (Yao): Canon Singing in China, Vietnam, Laos. Elevated to a sound quality level most ethnomusicologists only dream of, Mien showcases four songs from Mien communities across southeast Asia. It was recorded on-site in the titular three countries, as immersive notes of background wildlife and other incidentally grounding sounds attest.
Cascading vocals rise and fall on “Lan Pan Moon”, a duet between Laos-based women Keo and Na. They follow each other in subtly intricate verses, setting mythological texts to music that tell not only of a distant past but of one more recent, alluding to waves of migration often forced by war and government action. That includes the Laotian Civil War in which the CIA recruited guerrilla forces from Mien groups, among others, before beating a hasty retreat and leaving many Mien behind as enemies of the victorious new government and forced to seek refuge in Thailand and beyond. Movement is evident in Keo and Na’s slightly dissonant rounds, which diverge and converge many times over nearly 20 minutes. When the singers lapse into momentary pauses, their silences are filled by breathtaking birdsong, enhancing the immediacy of their performances and the album’s sense of place.
We move to Yunnan province for the next two songs, “Kai Tian Pi Di” and “Shan Ge”. The former is another women’s duet, this time by Deng Fu Mei and Zhang Wu Mei, whose voices rise, loop, and fall with electrifying strength. “Shan Ge” sees this duo joined by male voices: Yang Chun Jin and Yang Bao Chang, two singers who offer a low end that widens the group’s polyphonic range. By far the shortest track on the album, it builds with a warmth that carries us into Vietnam for the grand finale: “Dao Cham”, a ritual piece resonant with drums, gongs, and singers Li Ti Chung and Pan Ti Xai in earthy harmony over the laughing and shouting of dancers and other participants.
Like many other original Sublime Frequencies releases, Mien is a production of the Kink Gong project’s mastermind Laurent Jeanneau. His work in recording local sounds of a wide range of minority communities in Southeast Asia and beyond is extensive and ethically-minded. In the past, Jeanneau has spoken candidly about doing his part to pass on profits to communities he works with. He also aims to represent groups who can’t fit into protective structures like UNESCO. It’s a fairly reassuring history in what is ultimately always going to be a context full of impossible questions of benefit and commerce. It comes through his work on many levels of detail as Jeanneau gives us things like full sonic contexts and full names – things we should be able to take for granted but, in field recordings, often cannot.
Mien may be a work of preservation and posterity for some, of education for others, of meditation if you close your eyes and listen from start to finish. Its careful production allows for all of these things. These slices of Mien musical life tell rich stories through layers of sound centered around but not limited to raw, powerful vocals. Songs are not extracted but situated, giving audiences everywhere the opportunity to listen to these moments as close as possible to the way they were performed.